No one in contemporary cinema makes you work harder to look at the art and not the artist than Mel Gibson. Not that he has given us many recent examples to work from. His latest feature as a director was the Mayan human sacrifice jam, Apocalypto, made ten years ago, two years before his well-publicized anti-Semitic meltdown. Never a subtle man when it comes to his religious convictions–this also being the auteur behind The Passion of the Christ–Gibson has returned to the director’s chair for Hacksaw Ridge, a faith-based film masquerading as much better-made film about World War II (I emphasize the “better made” part because most faith-based films are about as well put together as an elementary school production of Les Miserables).
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a good-ol’ boy from Virginia, a Seventh Day Adventist who loves his family, God and his pretty girlfriend, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). His daddy (Hugo Weaving) is a drunk, traumatized by the loss of his friends in the Great War, and a man who has a painful tendency of beating his wife (Rachel Griffiths). Earlier in Desmond’s life, he nearly kills his brother with a brick while tussling–a scene punctuated by an adolescent Desmond gazing moonily at an image of the Ten Commandments in penitence–and later is in a position to shoot down his dad to protect his mom from one of his boozy brawls. Desmond fears God and, therefore, abhors violence.
After proposing to Dorothy, Desmond enlists as a combat medic and goes into basic training, where he is tormented by his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and commanding officer (Sam Worthington) for refusing to wield or even hold a rife. Desmond is a conscientious objector and is therefore protected from the law from having to carry a weapon. He is court-martialed for disobeying a direct order to pick up a gun, but manages to be cleared of his charges. He heads to Okinawa and the eponymous hill, where he will go on to save 75 men from dying alone on the battlefield.
From the cornpone of the well-scrubbed early scenes of the film, you can tell that Gibson is itching to get onto the battlefield. Characters are sketchily drawn and broadly acted, as if they were directed to emulate all of the bit players from The Best Years of Our Lives but not the main cast. Garfield presents Desmond as a more or less simple guy who looks at the world in fairly straightforward terms, channeling Jimmy Stewart with extra gee-whiz on the side. Gibson can barely restrain himself from injecting his beloved ultraviolence into these halcyon scenes, with a gruesomely gushing artery and a savage brick-slam to a kid’s face. You’d think that he is flashing forward to the explosions that are to come when both Palmer and then Garfield are nearly mown down by traffic, but there’s no callback to it when the shooting starts.
Hacksaw Ridge is paced like a gatling gun: slow to wind up but once it gets going, the explosions never stop. While this movie feels very much like a war film in a classical sense, Gibson makes an unorthodox decision by zeroing in on a particular fight and refusing to let up once he starts. Given the sequence of events, it feels as though the few days fought on the titular Hacksaw Ridge are the first bits of combat Desmond’s ever seen, but it’s certainly not clear. Gibson doesn’t particularly seem to care about Desmond’s arc, as the character virtually has none: he starts the movie objecting to violence, is heavily exposed to it, and ultimately decides that he feels the same way about it. This is important to note, because to say that Gibson has an affinity for violence is like saying Cookie Monster has an affinity for baked goods.
I won’t beat around the bush here: these are some of the most thrilling war sequences ever put to celluloid. Gibson has a rare talent for staging elaborate, wide-ranging battle scenes that maintain a sense of composure and location throughout. The only comparable examples right now are happening on Game of Thrones, and those don’t have guns. They are also incredibly gory, with numerous shots of disembodied limbs connected to snaggles of bloody viscera. Explosions abound, but people don’t just fall over or leap out of the way; they do a lot of exploding, too. During the scenes of basic training, Gibson establishes the supporting cast, played by up-and-comers like Luke Bracey, and they each get their moment during these hellish shootouts. We don’t know these guys very well, but we know enough to care about them not being disemboweled by a bayonet.
Even more extraordinary, however, are the scenes that succeed the massive firefight, in which Desmond remains on the ledge while it is being shellacked by the Americans so he can rescue the fallen men. He is the only of the non-wounded to stay and yet he courageously ventures out to drag out his comrades and lower them down to safety. It’s public record that Desmond Doss survived the ordeal and was awarded the Medal of Honor, but it’s nonetheless an incredible sight to see. The fact that the scene culminates in what can only be described as a baptism gives no cause for surprise.
What to make of Gibson, the terrifically talented and troubled filmmaker? It’s tough to say when the man seems to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth: he made a pacifistic war film about a conscientious objector that has spectacular scenes of vicious death and misery. Few may agree with his real-life behavior, but it is hard to contradict the fact that Gibson knows his job well and does it better than most. Hacksaw Ridge is perhaps most valuable as an example of when an artist feels too strongly about too many different things to give a clear statement about anything. As a work of craftsmanship, Hacksaw Ridge is unparalleled, but its ideals are as cloudy as the fog of war.
Drama | Summit Entertainment